CAIRO (AP) — Egypt has detained and charged four activists with spreading false news and violating the country's protest ban after they stood outside the Cabinet building and called for the government to release prisoners amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The detentions came as the Egyptian government tries to maintain its firm grip on dissent amid a burgeoning world health crisis. According to human rights groups, there are tens of thousands held without due process in the country for their political views.
The four detained women included three family members of jailed prominent Egyptian activist, Alaa Abdel Fattah — his mother, aunt and sister. On Wednesday, the four stood in front of the Cabinet headquarters in downtown Cairo with small signs calling for prisoners to be released because of the virus.
Abdel Fattah’s sister Mona Seif live -streamed a video of herself and the other three as they held up the signs.
“In normal circumstances, Egyptian prisons are epicenters of diseases. Can you imagine how bad things must be now in the midst of an epidemic?” she said in the video. Minutes later, the live stream was cut when police seemed to stop the filming.
A prosecutor accused them of violating the country's strict protest ban with their gathering.
Mona Seif, her aunt and the fourth activist were released Thursday evening, 15 hours after posting bail, said another sister, Sanaa Seif, who did not attend the protest, in a Facebook post. She said her mother, Laila Soueif, was taken to a prosecutors’ office for further questioning.
Abdel Fattah's family have all been vocal rights activists in Egypt. Alaa Abdel Fattah, a 38-year-old software engineer, grew into a figurehead of the pro-democracy protest movement on social media during the 2011 uprising that removed longtime President Hosni Mubarak. He served a five-year prison sentence for violating Egypt's protest ban, and in September, not long after his release, he was arrested again amid a widespread crackdown that followed small protests demanding current President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi step down — though he did not participate in the protests.
Egyptian authorities could not be immediately reached for comment. El-Sissi has maintained in the past that the country has no political prisoners, but tens of thousands have been arrested and handed prison sentences for breaking the protest ban or on vague charges of spreading false news.
In recent months, his government has led several press tours of prisons that show them in gleaming condition with modern health facilities. But inmates and rights workers tell a different story, of packed cells with little sunlight.
Egypt has so far registered 210 confirmed cases and six deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic, none of them inside the prison system. The government has taken several precautionary measures to prevent its spread including the suspension of schools, halting of air travel, a partial shut-down of recreational places and the reduction of the workforce in government offices as well as private businesses. It has also stopped family visits to prisons.
Rights groups say that's not enough for the thousands who shouldn't be behind bars in the first place, citing examples of releases elsewhere. Iran has let 85,000 prisoners go on temporary leave. Also in Bahrain, hundreds of prisoners were pardoned last week to reduce congestion in prisons.
"Prisoners cannot take their own precautionary measures. They cannot isolate or sanitize themselves. So it is the government’s responsibility to protect them,” said Mohamed Lofty, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.
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